A Healthy Dose of Western Lingo


With cold, flu and general “crud” season upon us, it seems appropriate for this installment of “Western Lingo” to investigate a few “health related” phrases.  You’ll be surprised to discover that they may not be nearly as “Western” in their origin as you once believed!

I hereby dedicate this post to my favorite Western TV physicians—Doc Adams from “Gunsmoke,” Doc Baker from “Little House on the Prairie” and Dr. Michaela Quinn from “Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman”.  They tirelessly treated everything from gunshot wounds to frostbite, typhus to yellow fever. . . and they did it with little more than a stethoscope, a bottle of whiskey and some fancy book larnin’! I must confess; my heroes have always been cowboy doctors!

Snake Oil/ Snake Oil Salesman

Blog4Goodness NO, my favorite television docs never peddled snake oil! Most people use the term “snake oil” to refer to any miracle cure that is too good to be true and a “snake oil salesman” as the person who tries to sell you something of questionable quality. But, did you know that these terms originally referred to oil made from Chinese Water Snakes and the men who sold it?

Snake oil originated in China and made its way to the U.S. through Chinese laborers who were building the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860’s. Snake oil was marketed as having healing properties and was believed to treat achy joints and muscles. Snake oil salesmen, quite literally, took those claims to the streets, but they unfortunately included more hype than evidence. Think of the snake oil salesman as the original infomercial pitchman!

Blog5Crowds would gather to hear the pitch. Normally, there were a few “satisfied customers” planted in the crowd to extol the virtues of snake oil. By the time people realized the snake oil didn’t really cure what ailed them, the salesman and his entourage had moved on to the next town. Snake oil soon became the nickname given to any miracle elixir peddled by traveling salesmen.

Sleep Tight! Don’t Let the Bedbugs Bite!

Blog6Any Old West doc could have told you the importance of getting a good night’s sleep. The phrase “Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” would indicate that restful slumber was not something to be taken for granted. I’ve never understood how a warning about bed bugs is supposed to promote sleep! So, where did the phrase originate? I hate to tell you that no one really knows for certain, but there are a couple of interesting theories.

Blog7There’s a great story that circulates the internet that the “sleep tight” portion of the phrase refers to the days when mattresses were supported by a series of ropes tied to a bed frame. When the ropes began to sag, so did the bed’s occupant! When the ropes sagged too much, they would be tightened to the appropriate pioneer version of a “sleep number”. I’m inclined to think that this theory is the most plausible.

The Oxford English Dictionary may offer another possible explanation.  In the 18th century, “tightly” commonly meant, “soundly, or well”. So, it’s possibly that some grammar-lazy Americans simply dropped the adverb and turned “sleep tightly” into “sleep tight”.  (Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, get your adverbs here!) Again, that sounds plausible, but I really like the rope story best!

Bed BugsNo one disputes the “Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” portion of the phrase. In the Old West, mattresses were commonly filled with straw or pine needles, gathered fresh from the outdoors.. As you might expect, that stuffing usually included some creepy crawly critters . . . but yecch. . .  I would rather not dwell on that for very long! It makes me itchy just thinking about it!

Dead as a Doornail

Blog9Even the best of docs occasionally lost a patient. “Dead as a doornail” is one of those phrases bandied about in Westerns that I had never really contemplated. Of course a doornail isn’t alive. Neither is a hammer! Why would people say that someone is “dead as a doornail”? Ah, I have an answer!

Blog10The idea of someone being as dead as a doornail is much older than the Old West! In fact, the phrase dates back to fourteenth century England. It can be found in William Langland’s allegorical poem “The Vision of Piers Plowman” and, later, in William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”.

Doornails are said to be the heavy studded nails that decorated the outside of medieval doors and made them look so, well . . . medieval! A doornail might also have been the giant nail on which the doorknocker rested.


Blog11The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins
states that any nail used in a door would have been secured in such a way that the nail could not have been reused. The technique is called “clinching” and it really just means bending the end of the nail.  Clinching a nail renders it “dead” because it can’t be borrowed for another project.

Fit as a Fiddle

Blog12It was any good Western doc’s desire to have his patients feeling fit as a fiddle and not be as dead as a doornail! Being fit as a fiddle refers to being in good health and tip-top shape. When you stop and think about it, that’s a strange phrase. Why would we say someone is as “fit as a fiddle” and not as “fit as…” well, just about anything else?

Blog13Of course, a fiddle is another name for a violin. I’ve always been told that the difference between a fiddle and a violin is the manner in which it’s played. One theory on why “fit as a fiddle” came to be used as an expression is that musical instruments were highly valued and special care was taken to keep them in fine working condition.  I know my family prizes my grandfather’s old fiddle, which has a horsehair bow.

Other theories claim that the original phrase was “fit as a fiddler” because fiddle playing is a rather energetic endeavor. I know . . . let’s investigate ourselves!  Watch Charlie Daniels tear it up with some furious fiddlin’ here. . .maybe he’ll prove this theory right!:

So what say you, fit as a fiddle or not?

“Fit as a fiddle”as an expression can be traced WAYYYYYYYYYYYYY back to 1598 when it was included in an Elizabethan era stage play by William Haughton, Englishmen for My Money.  I’m shocked at how many of my favorite “Western” sayings originated in England!

However these phrases came into being, I hope you are finding yourself to be as fit as a fiddle. Chicken soup is probably better than snake oil for anything that ails you. And, whatever you do, get plenty of rest and don’t let the bedbugs bite!

Happy Trails, y’all!

Anita Lequoia

2 Replies to “A Healthy Dose of Western Lingo”

    1. Howdy, Sharon! It’s fun to investigate how all those Western expressions came to be. . .sometimes the origin is where you’d least expect it to be! So glad that you enjoyed the story, and thanks for stopping by!

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